The Day The Bottom Dropped Out (And The Story Of The Mazda 6)

29 Sep

“Reflexes got the better of me,

And what is to be must be,

Every day, the bucket goes to the well,

But one day, the bottom will drop out,

Yes one day, the bottom will drop out.”

   –Eric Clapton, “I Shot The Sheriff”, 1974

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The bottom didn’t have to drop out for Jeff on November 9th, 2010, but because reflexes got the better of him, it did.  Every day for his last two months, I’m quite sure he sent a bucket down into his personal well of strength reserves, but the medication he was on depleted those reserves day by day.  And when he reached down deep on November 9th, only to find that the well had run dry, he reacted on impulse rather than on reason.  Instead of going to the gym or out for a jog to replenish the well, he panicked.  The bottom dropped out.  He wrote his notes and took one last ride in his beloved Mazda 6.

But just two days earlier, on Sunday November 7th, our family did what we always try to do on Sunday evenings—have a family dinner out with as many of us as are home at the time.  And so on this night, with Drew away at college, the remaining four of us had dinner at Macarthurs in Pleasantville.  Carey, Brett and I drove over there together, and Jeff came directly from the gym to meet us.

In the midst of that terrible autumn, this night stood out to me, as Jeff was in as good a mood as I had seen him in for quite some time.  You knew Jeff was feeling good when he teased Brett (who he affectionately called “B Man”, or just “B” for short), as this was one of his favorite pastimes.  That night at dinner, Jeff gleefully teased Brett about the fact that the menu was filled with “B things”, like Beef Barley soup and Butternut Bisque.  Jeff thought this was hilarious.  Brett just rolled his eyes.

Carey and I were simultaneously thankful and taken aback by Jeff’s lighthearted mood at dinner that night.  It had been a while since we had seen him like that.  The optimist in me reasoned that doing things with his family always brought out the best in Jeff, and this night was just another example of that.  In retrospect, though, the cynic in me–a side that really never existed until Jeff’s death—speculated that Jeff’s mood was the result of his having already made the decision to end his life, and thus he no longer needed to fear the future.  I have since concluded, based on the great time we had the following night watching Monday Night Football and his earnest attempts on the morning of November 9th to get to his behavioral therapy appointment, that it was the former.  Jeff just let himself enjoy the continuation of our Sunday night family tradition.  He had no definitive plans to leave us.  The bucket was still delivering strength from the well.

Three months earlier, Brett had received his driving learners’ permit and was going to take his road test that coming spring.  Thus, after walking down the street to have ice cream at Cold Stone, Brett asked if it would be ok for him to drive Jeff’s car home to get some practice.  I told him that was a question for Jeff, but since it was before 9pm, it was fine with me.  Jeff didn’t hesitate for a second; he threw the keys to Brett, and they were off.

To this day, I remember standing on the sidewalk watching the metallic blue Mazda 6 drive away with Brett at the controls and Jeff in the passenger seat.  I felt a bit emotional, as it was the first time Brett had ever driven without either Carey or me in the car. But I knew he was in great hands with his big brother, and I felt proud.  I had absolutely no clue where that car would end up about 43 hours later.

The Mazda 6 was Jeff’s second car, but it was the first one that he leased in his own name and for which he made the payments.  For me, the best part of it all was that Jeff willingly allowed Carey and me to be fully engaged in the car shopping process, and it was a great parental experience for us.  And just recently, I got to enjoy a similar experience with Drew.  It was wonderful observing how Jeff solicited our advice, thoroughly analyzed all the options, considered the various prices, and made the final decision.

Although this all happened over 3 1/2 years ago, in January 2010, I remember it vividly.  But I need not worry if my memory fails me someday, because I can literally relive the entire experience through my computer screen by simply pulling up all the emails (of course I saved them) that bounced between the three of us during that time.

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Jeff enjoyed driving his Mazda 6 for a full nine months before, on November 9th of that year, he tried to drive it to his first appointment with a behavioral therapist but was thwarted, first by me calling him and his Bluetooth not kicking in, causing him to be pulled over a cop.  How tragically ironic it is that the bluetooth feature that I felt was so important for him to get to maximize his safety malfunctioned at the most critical of moments and arguably cost Jeff his life.  The cop let Jeff go without giving him a ticket, but when he resumed the drive, a stone wall of traffic on the Sprain Parkway caused him to turn back and head home.  We rescheduled his appointment for 3:30 that day, but at that point, Jeff had apparently had enough.

After having lunch with Carey at home, he instead drove the car we all shopped for together to the most horrible of places.  Once parked on the Rockland County side of the Bear Mountain Bridge, he left the car behind with only his cell phone, his drivers’ license, three final notes, and one dollar bill remaining in it.

About a month later, Brett asked me what I planned to do with the car, and I told him that I would dispose of it and get it out of our sight as soon as humanly possible.  I was stunned by his response.  He told me that he loved the car and would like to have it as his own first car.

I had a viscerally negative reaction to Brett’s suggestion.  After all, Jeff spent his last moments on earth in this vehicle.  How could it possibly be healthy for Brett to inherit it?  He was just 16 at the time, an age that I considered to be quite tender. I suggested to him that it might be better for him to start fresh with his own new or used car and that maybe this one would bring with it some very unpleasant memories.

Brett rejected that hypothesis out of hand.  He reiterated that he had loved driving it home the month before, it looked really cool, and he was not at all concerned about the fact that it had been Jeff’s. I believe he also viewed this as a way to stay connected to his brother.  I was very moved by this, and since Drew already had a car that he was very happy with, we decided as a family that the Mazda 6 would become Brett’s.  And five months later, on April 11th, 2011, Brett passed his road test driving that car, and within minutes of doing so, he sent me this triumphant text:

Brett Yeah Baby

I don’t think I’ve ever had such conflicting emotions about an inanimate object in my life, but the Mazda 6 has brought them all to the forefront.  For Jeff, back in January 2010, the car represented excitement, pride, responsibility and self-satisfaction.  But when he drove it to his final destination, I could only view it as a holding pen for the personal articles listed earlier and an instrument of destruction that carried our son to his end.  With Brett’s extremely mature and pragmatic approach to the car, though, it now sits in our driveway as a symbol of renewal, and in my opinion, of unequivocal brotherly love.

Brett has demonstrated his love for Jeff in his own quiet ways.  I was quite touched when, during finals week this past May, I received this photo and text from him right before he left his dorm to take one of his final exams that day.  Unbeknownst to me, he had begun a tradition earlier in his freshman year of wearing Jeff’s Middlebury shirt when he took any important exam.  In this text, he wrote under the photo: “My test taking shirt.”  What an understated but beautiful expression of his love for Jeff.

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I don’t know what we’ll do when the Mazda’s lease is up at the end of the year, but personally, I think that it will finally be time to say goodbye to the vehicle that, by simply looking at it, conjures up so many conflicting feelings within me.  However, it will be Brett’s call and I will support his decision.

In the end, though, the future of the Mazda 6 is unimportant, as this blog post is really just a story about how something as simple as shopping for a car with your son can be a wonderful bonding experience between parents and child that can be treasured forever.  And it is also the story of just how strong the bond between brothers can be, such that no matter how horrific the manner in which Jeff left us was, his brothers’ love for and pride in him remains unbroken.  So whether it is Brett driving Jeff’s car and wearing his shirt on test days,  or Drew blogging about him here on Kleinsaucer or sharing anecdotes about him when we’re home together, they do those things with pride and it is how they each keep him alive in their own way.  It’s really a beautiful thing to observe.

This blog post, however, is also about the dangers of acting reflexively in the heat of a moment in almost any situation in life.  The consequences of doing so are rarely good, and in Jeff’s case, they were fatal.  This concept also applies to more mundane situations, such as holding your fire on an email or text that you might want to send in anger, or taking a deep breath before saying something hurtful to someone you love in the midst of an argument, and so on.   It is one thing to act impulsively and take your spouse away for a weekend on a whim.  It is another to act out in a destructive way during stressful situations.

I keep getting back to the New York Times article written by Sabrina Tavernise (“With Guns, Killer and Victim Are Usually the Same”, February 14, 2013) that I referenced in my Father’s Day post.  She wrote that the majority of suicides are the result of temporary bouts of rage or despair—essentially reflex actions leading to the bottom dropping out.  If Jeff had only taken a deep breath, a walk around the house, or had called me…

When we lost Jeff, we lost a beautiful, smart, kind, funny and universally loved young man whose ability to think clearly was simply obliterated by misprescribed medication during the last two months of his life, after he had left a job that he detested.  This is the reason I will devote a great deal of my time in the future to raising awareness of the danger of doctors making rash decisions to prescribe anti-depressants before a thorough evaluation and diagnosis of a patient’s condition has been completed.  It is safe to say that Jeff was not the first to become a victim of this tendency.  I want to help ensure he is one of the last.

So many people have told me that through both the Friends of Jeff Klein Facebook page and through this blog, they have come to know Jeff better than ever.  And many others who did not know Jeff very well before he died have told me that they now feel like they’ve known him for years.  I never tire of hearing those comments.

Jeff had the terribly misguided thought that he no longer wanted to live.  However, through the collective efforts of everyone who loves him, we have given him no choice.  His spirit is vibrant, his memory is alive, hair styles have been altered in his honor, and his emails, texts, photos, videos and this blog are here forever.  And I know in my heart that Jeff, in Heaven, is fully aware of all this and is deeply humbled by it.

I am also quite sure he now knows that he made a terrible mistake.  But suicide unfortunately is irreversible, as is the enormous pain that the victim leaves behind with all of the people who loved him or her the most.  For Jeff, what was to be has been, and it can’t be undone.

So please, the next time you feel your blood reaching its boiling point or when you simply feel overwhelmed, take a deep breath, and think of Jeff and the lesson he left behind.  He made the old cliché become all too real.  Life truly is too short to let reflexes get the better of us.

But while Jeff’s life was way too short, our time with him was as rich and meaningful as it could have possibly been.  And that’s why I am today focusing my thoughts on the experience of shopping together for the Mazda 6.  The reason that moment, just like so many other precious times we had with Jeff, is alive and vibrant for us today is because we took the time to bask in the experience back then.  By living in the moment with your loved ones as you experience life’s day to day simple joys, you will ensure that those times will live in your hearts forever–even if you don’t have any emails to help jog your memory.

-Rich Klein

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3 Responses to “The Day The Bottom Dropped Out (And The Story Of The Mazda 6)”

  1. Bruce Wenig September 29, 2013 at 10:14 pm #

    It’s truly unbelievable,and I’m so lucky to see the joy in both your eyes.
    Great story!!!!!!

  2. Susan McClanahan September 29, 2013 at 10:41 pm #

    So incredibly beautiful; thanks Rich. I learn from Jeff with each and every post, xo, Sue

  3. Pamela Suan November 9, 2013 at 9:53 am #

    As always a touching post, and one filled with important lessons. There are so many outside of the circle of “lovers of Jeff” who can benefit from all you have learned.
    Much love to you and Carey, Drew and Brett on this most difficult day… and love and support to you all every day.
    xxoo Pam

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